Steelers still hold No. 6 seed, but margin for error down to nothing

PITTSBURGH -- Clinching a playoff spot got harder for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.

With two chances to narrow a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Devlin "Duck" Hodges did the one thing coach Mike Tomlin said he couldn't do: He threw interceptions.


With their 17-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night, the Steelers are clinging to the final AFC wild-card spot with two games left. The Bills, meanwhile, clinched the first wild-card spot with the win.

The Steelers currently hold the tiebreaker over the Tennessee Titans and remain the AFC's No. 6 seed, but to hold on to it, Pittsburgh will need to outpace the Titans over the final two games.

ESPN's Football Power Index currently likes the Titans to take over that No. 6 seed, giving Tennessee a 50% chance to make the playoffs while the Steelers sit at 45%.

To even be in the position of making the playoffs is improbable with a third-string quarterback and a team that started out 1-4. But a stout defense got the Steelers this far, and it almost carried them to another win.

The Steelers got turnovers with a Steven Nelson interception and a TJ Watt forced fumble. Watt added a sack and a batted-down pass to round out a sterling performance, one that often made Bills quarterback Josh Allen uncomfortable.

But the Steelers faltered on offense as Hodges turned in his weakest performance as starting quarterback.

Targeting Deon Cain in the end zone while facing fourth-and-7 from the 23 with two minutes to play, Hodges saw his pass land in the arms of Bills safety Jordan Poyer.

Hodges got another chance after a quick series by Buffalo, but the result was the same. After throwing a big first-down pass, he took a sack with less than 30 seconds left. Then he threw another end zone interception, this one to cornerback Levi Wallace as he looked for receiver James Washington.

Troubling trend I: Rookie receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled twice, losing the ball once. In the first half, Johnson fumbled after receiving a handoff from James Conner in a Wildcat formation. Johnson also fumbled on a 31-yard reception to open the second half, but Tevin Jones jumped on it to keep possession. The 2019 third-round pick has had an up-and-down season, but with playmakers at a premium recently, the Steelers need him to be more reliable.

Troubling trend II: After the miscue on the fake punt a week ago, punter Jordan Berry needed to rebound with a strong performance in a battle of field position against the Bills. Instead, Berry struggled again with a 22-yard punt that shot up in the air before making minimal forward progress. The Bills scored their first touchdown on the short field, needing just 40 yards to get to the end zone. Then, in the second half, an awkward punting motion led to a 39-yard punt. That time, though, the defense bailed Berry out and forced a three-and-out.

QB breakdown: In a tongue-in-cheek moment, coach Mike Tomlin set the bar pretty low for Hodges with his "just don't kill us" directive after Hodges took the starting job from Mason Rudolph less than a month ago. Hodges held up his end in starts against the Browns and Cardinals, but had three poor moments Sunday night. The first came on a deep pass to the inside of Johnson. Per Next Gen Stats, it had just a 48.6% completion probability -- the lowest of any receiver on the field -- and a 14.3% interception probability -- the highest on the field. Not surprisingly, it was easily picked off by Tre'Davious White and returned 49 yards before offensive lineman Matt Feiler pushed the cornerback out of bounds. Outside of a touchdown drive to open the second half, when he was 4-of-5 for 70 yards, Hodges looked shaky. He completed 23 of 38 attempts for 202 yards with a touchdown and four interceptions. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, on throws traveling 10 or fewer yards downfield, Hodges was 3-of-7 for minus-2 yards in the first half. His passes were wobbly at times, and he wasn't helped by an offensive line that struggled to keep the pressure at bay.

Silver lining: Active for the first time since Nov. 14, James Conner had an impactful return to the field. The back opened up the Steelers' first offensive possession with a 15-yard carry and finished with 42 yards on eight carries. He also caught four passes for 9 yards and a touchdown -- the lone touchdown scored by the Steelers.